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The hypocrisy of the Academy

| Monday, February 29, 2016

TheHypocricyAcademy_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

“The #AcademyAwards are on ABC this year and people are honestly wondering if #TheForceAwakens will get a best picture nomination.”

Two months ago, I tweeted this brash statement along with a screengrab of ABC’s Wikipedia page — specifically of the portion noting that ABC is a subsidiary of Disney. Disney, of course, purchased the “Star Wars” franchise — as well as the rest of Lucasfilm — from George Lucas for $4 billion in 2012.

The steady decline of the Oscars’ television ratings is an annual point of discussion for film and television journalists. Fancying myself something of an Oscars-whisperer, I was certain Disney would doctor the nomination process to make room for their smash hit, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Surely including one of the most popular movies ever made in the batch of Best Picture nominees — which are usually little-seen, middlebrow “prestige pictures” — would prove an irresistible way for Disney and ABC to cheat their way out of the Oscars ratings slump.

The nominees were announced three weeks later. To my surprise (and disappointment — I adore “The Force Awakens”), it received no recognition in any of the major categories, including Best Picture. Ultimately, if naïvely, my sadness gave way to relief. That “The Force Awakens” wasn’t awarded any big nominations was affirmation the Academy stands for something. That an inordinate sum of money and popularity, along with pressure from corporate higher-ups, aren’t enough to corrupt that antiquated taste-making TV show we call the Oscars. That Oscar voters at the very least remain true to their taste. “The Force Awakens” and its yearlong advertising campaign were a spectacular mix of nostalgia and exhibitionism. I loved that mix, but I can respect the honesty to self displayed by the Academy in not nominating it for any of the big awards.

Or so I thought. But after seeing Alejandro Iñárritu accept the award for achievement in directing for his work on “The Revenant,” I threw what sympathy I had out the window.

In filling his movie’s two-and-a-half hour running time with gore, rape, blunt statements about race and mystical musings that play like a poor imitation of Terrence Malick, Iñárritu crafted a movie that is bloated and portentous. Quite frankly, “The Revenant” is terrible.

But there’s flashy camerawork — long takes, anyone? — and extreme conditions and locations to burn. I must admit: Iñárritu has style, and sometimes it works to marvelous effect. Watching his camera, piloted by three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, plummet down an icy waterfall alongside Leonardo DiCaprio is like riding through a nightmarish water park. But imagine that scene repeated over and over for two-and-a-half hours — that’s “The Revenant.” It’s all style and technique; it’s a masterful student film. At this point for Iñárritu, directing is an exercise not in storytelling, but in exhibitionism.

He snagged his second consecutive directing Oscar (last year, he actually earned the award for “Birdman”) on Sunday. I’d like to think Iñárritu won in spite of his rank exhibitionism, but looking at “The Revenant,” a movie that exists mainly as a platform to show off technical prowess, I’m forced to come to terms with the fact Iñárritu’s exhibitionism is exactly why he won.

That sad fact points to the hypocrisy of the Academy. Perhaps as a matter of principle, it won’t nominate a crowd-pleasing, thrilling spectacle of a movie like “The Force Awakens.” However, dress a pulpy revenge tale up with religious overtones, a brooding score, beautiful-yet-meaningless camerawork, imprecise statements regarding race and overly serious performances, and suddenly you’re the director of the year. Yes, both movies are filled with spectacle for the sake of spectacle, but “The Force Awakens” is actually entertaining. The signs have always been there, but for whatever reason, only now do I see the truth: The Academy’s taste in directing — in addition to its backward racial politics — is totally reproachable. Uncompromising devotion to taste is a good thing but only if you’ve got good taste.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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